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Pedestrian in Los Angeles

It was cold and damp, and we'd been tramping up and down for the better part of an hour, past houses, little restaurants, shops, and the Scientology Celebrity Center – twice – when we finally asked someone where the Hollywood Hills Café was. It was a mile back where we had come from, hidden in a nondescript Best Western by the freeway. The time was about nine on a March evening, we were idiotically underdressed, and our sole motivation for seeking out the professedly downscale restaurant was its reputation – given by an article in the Globe and Mail – for being a celebrity hangout. When we finally got there, the only celebrities were in autographed photos on the wall; our closest brush with fame was the impressions left in the naugahyde booths by their vanished posteriors. And a twenty-minute walk back to our hotel awaited us. This was our Los Angeles. And it was good.


You shouldn't see Los Angeles by foot, of course; everyone knows that. In this ridiculously expansive city, if you lack a vehicle, you are truly among the dispossessed. So when Aina and I chose to try our fortune without wheels, everybody thought we were out of our minds, especially since Aina's a figure skater and needed to keep her legs in working order. But we couldn't have had it any other way.

Why did we see Los Angeles on foot? This is a two-part question. The answer to part two – Why on foot? – is straightforward enough: money, and the challenge. The answer to part one, Why L.A.?, is that we were enticed by its mythos, its hyperreality, its glamour. Aina was touring with Disney on Ice, and I flew out to join her and to see a great and famous city. Is not figure skating glamorous enough? No, it only increases the appetite.

We stayed at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, site of the first Academy Awards, snugly ensconced in the walk of fame and right across the street from Mann's Chinese Theatre with its cemented footprints. Shirley Temple learned to tapdance on the stairs here. Step out the front door onto Hollywood Boulevard and you're treading on the brass pentacles of Cybill Shepherd and The Original Fifth Dimension. But the area is dining out on the scraps of its past – now it's mostly souvenir shops and liquor stores and places you can't take children. Glamour has shifted miles to the southwest. So, like Dorothy and Toto, we set off to find our own Emerald City, not Oz but Beverly Hills. And our yellow brick road went by way of the vaunted Melrose Avenue.

Everything happens somewhere. And one of the foremost somewhere everything happens is, in the American culture of fame, Los Angeles. The very fabric of the city is more real than reality. And more exemplary and varied: the architecture is simply astounding in its incessant diversity and its frequent luxury. Commercial buildings are almost invariably paragons of style. Of course, that style was learned from seeing these buildings on TV. But when you've seen the outside, there's little to do but move on – you're not invited in, unless the building is a shop. And the streets are quiet; as we passed through at 10:30 AM, Melrose Avenue might as well have been Fargo. We were glad when an open interior loomed ahead: Beverly Center.

Beverly Center! By the very name one expects a top-quality mall. And so it is – top of the parking garage. One has to ascend by several flights of escalators as though to a postmodern Aztec sacrifice. The reward at the top is a mall much like many others. It's remarkable how you can be anywhere and step into a mall and immediately enter an environment that is utterly familiar. But how could we have been disappointed? We were in the birthplace of the hyperreal America, the uniculture, one-size-fits-all, here-is-your-American-dream-do-you-want-to-supersize-that Generica. Los Angeles – and especially the minds quietly chugging away in Beverly Hills and its satellites – invented Generica. And here, in Beverly, it has been elevated, placed on high, atop a stack of the two things that have most shaped America and especially L.A.: concrete and cars. But we wanted more. We pushed onward, peeling away streetscapes slowly.

After our three-hour stroll, however, our glittering goal was an anticlimax. Just as stars are shorter in real life, the famous stretch of Rodeo Drive is a mere three blocks of high-fashion stores. And they're pretty much the same stores we walk past almost daily in Toronto. So here is fashion, in little boutiques, and those who shop in them arrive and leave by car. Sidewalk sales are not in evidence. We were stuck on the outside again – why enter a store just to endure the quick humiliating full-body glance and cold shoulder – and we were hungry. Ferre, Armani, Chanel, Manolo blah blah blah, give me a taco. The most striking thing about Rodeo Drive for us, after its smallness, was the absence of any place to eat.

The street with restaurants is two blocks east: Cañon Drive. We cruised it, passing Chasen's, where a producer-looking guy (who probably was a producer; how many people can afford to eat there?) was seated alone on the patio perusing something or other (a script, perhaps?) and was later, on our second pass, to be seen with an actress-looking woman. If this was a near-brush with famous people, it didn't quite match seeing Mike Myers in a pub in Toronto. We walked down to see what Spago looked like, since it's apparently famous. Spago looked like a building hiding behind greenery, an entrance deep enough to prevent seeing into, and three orange-coated guys out front to park cars and screen the riffraff. And at this point, Aina was Riff and I was Raff. We walked back a block and had very nice and surprisingly affordable Italian food at a busy bistro on a corner. I can't even remember its name. Then we set out to the northwest.

Another hour and we were on the Sunset Strip. Although it is not short, hills and curves give it a smallish feeling for much of its length. The fact that many of the buildings are one storey and most of the rest are two aids this effect. The architecture includes a green flying saucer of a building (not a shop but someone's offices), an average-looking high-rise touting its role in some TV series, and the House of Blues, surely the most salient structure on the Strip for its thoroughgoing adherence to the Crummy Decaying Delta Tin Shack style of design (and rest assured that it is very well-maintained Crummy Decaying Delta Tin Shack, looking ready to spew forth fresh swamp monsters every hour on the quarter-hour). Also on the up-and-down middle of the strip is the Viper Room, co-owned by Johnny Depp and site of River Phoenix's untimely evanescence. We didn't go inside, but we were amazed at how utterly unprepossessing the outside is – a small sign, a flight of stairs, a black wall of a building. Never mind the banality of evil; the banality of the famous at close range is its most disarming feature.

The sidewalks are not crowded along Sunset, but it's not because people don't go there. We had the peculiar experience of going down a mostly empty sidewalk and walking into a perfectly crowded coffee joint. Where did all the people come from? When I headed to the back to use the washroom, I discovered the answer: a rear parking lot full of cars. In Los Angeles, people even drive to coffee joints. The car-privileged many slip in through the back entrance, and the closest they come to the sidewalk is when they choose to sit out in the boulevard seating and watch the passing of the pedestrians.

It was a long walk still to get back to the hotel. At Century Canyon, we walked up to Hollywood Boulevard. And for more than a mile we walked past houses and low apartment blocks. Not so much as one convenience store, nor anyone else on the sidewalks, not even in later afternoon. A block and a half from our hotel, Hollywood at last burst fully realized before us. Returned to the room, Aina immediately ran a hot bath for her suffering legs – no two hours of skating could match six or more of the L.A. concrete. And then, at my behest, we set out to find supper and the possibility of stars at the Hollywood Hills Café.


If Los Angeles at close range had failed to lift us to the heights of glamour, we could still try to elevate ourselves. Glamour had been distant from us; perhaps we could claim that distance. How many movies have had enticing mythopoeic vistas of Los Angeles from brush-covered hills? Therefore, the next day I insisted that we go up to the Griffith Park Observatory.

A good place to put a park is on land that you just can't do much else with, and, indeed, a rather large percentage of Griffith Park is chaparral-covered hills and ravines fit for little more than being backdrops to M*A*S*H episodes. The road up to the observatory forms a wavy incomplete paper clip of a line as it goes up first one side of a ravine and then the other. It has no footpaths or sidewalks. As we gradually ascended, the view developing by degrees, Aina reminded me that she was going to have to skate. And she was wearing shoes with three-inch heels.

Arriving at the top, we found the observatory closed until later in the day. But the roof was open to all comers. The view from up there is cinsecopic (Omnimax, actually). Aside from getting to see more haze than you thought you'd ever take in at one sweep of the eyes, you can see just about everything south of the mountains in L.A. You can take in that lofty view the hill-dwellers have of the flatlands whereon dwell their private security agents, valet parkers and domestic servants. The view should be famous; you feel like you're in a movie. (Rebel Without a Cause had some scene or other up here – so I'm told; I've never seen it.) We sat on the roof's concrete parapet and had our picture taken with the Hollywood sign in the background. And we strolled on the mountaintop and I wasted four bits in a broken telescope.

And then we had to come down. We attempted a shortcut down the other side of the ridge. All was well as we followed the path, but when we tried to descend into the neighborhood to the south, we were met with fences here, impassible slopes there. Ahead of us on an asphalt road was an attractive pink castle of a house we had seen from the observatory; it was the crown of a lower hill, surrounded by trees, a sight out of Disney or a 1980s drug gangster movie. But a high fence blocked the road to it. We turned around and descended by dirt path to the park gate, Aina's spike heels seeming less elegant by the minute. Our walk back to the hotel was a long one decorated by houses large and small followed by crumbling commercial structures.

That evening we cheated. We accepted a ride to a restaurant on a hilltop, in a house once owned by film star Anna Mae Wong. The view was great, the environs lovely, the atmosphere cordial. We left with our wallets even lighter than our spirits.


The following day, Wednesday, Aina abandoned the quest. Disney on Ice was having publicity; she had to show up and be a famous person. Now I was on my own, and I headed to the old heart of the city. I took a bus – too far to walk – and was humiliated by the driver, who, seeing my map, asked loudly if I was lost.

I sought out two places I had seen in Blade Runner, the sci-fi-noir vision of a dark and crumbly future that seemed so much more plausible to me now that I had experienced the city in person. J.F. Sebastian, the designer of replicants, factory-made humanoids with built-in obsolescence, lived in the Bradbury building with its high atrium and wrought iron, a 19th-century vision of the future, decaying in the movie as surely as Sebastian's replicants. Off-screen, it's a clean and beautiful building – and inaccessible beyond the lobby except to those with business in the offices above. Across the street is the Grand Central Market. It looked so much larger in the movie. I was reminded yet again that objects of fame do not have to be large; they can, after all, be made to appear so by careful framing. Perhaps car windows help in that effort.

Then I wandered, through art galleries and Chinatown and past the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion – site of so many Oscar ceremonies – and finally sought supper in the historical birthplace of the city: El Pueblo de Los Angeles State Historic Park, across the Santa Ana Freeway from downtown. It consists of a small set of narrow pedestrian streets with restored buildings, mainly restaurants or shops selling purses, cheap hats and other items like they sell to tourists on similar streets just south of the border, down Mexico way. Some of the items looked reasonably inviting; the atmosphere had that "authentic" stencil on it. The buildings were actually old, and, for a switch, L.A. felt cozy as I went down narrow, cobbled Olvera Street between the carts and the restaurants, not a car in sight, and people actually walking. I think they were all tourists, pretty much.

And then my time was up. I rushed off to the Art Deco Union Station, its leather seats and dim lighting apparently unchanged since the "golden age of travel." An unobtrusive side passage led down into the new Red Line subway, the cavernous station and empty trains used only by the carless few. I took it to MacArthur Park and, emerging from the underground, sprinted across the street to catch a bus to the L.A. County Arena for Grease on Ice, an evening of lights, swirling, jumping and pre-recorded song, with Aina Arro in the chorus: our glamour that we had come with and would leave with.

Going to meet Aina backstage after the show, I was carte-blanched past the door guards by Cory, the show director, and led into the concrete inner sanctum, the wigs, props and costumes all piled neatly in their travelling trunks, and Nancy Kerrigan, star of the show, looking smallish and pushing a baby carriage. From the inside, too, the glamour disarms by being in small bodies like any other. But it's different when you're in, not out. It's a privilege, not a disappointment, to see how small it is.



All contents © 2000–2004 James Harbeck